Plan your foodie roadtrip through Estonia
A new culinary route connecting small farms and restaurants provides a roadmap for discovering Estonia’s foodie highlights.
Estonians have always cooked “trendy” with what nature has to offer: game, fish, wild herbs, berries, and mushrooms – ideally consumed fresh, or then pickled or canned. Despite its rich heritage, Estonian cuisine has largely remained in the shadows, much to the mutual loss of both foodies and local artisan producers.
Luckily that is set to change with the recent launch of the Estonian Culinary Route, Toidutee, an interactive map inviting visitors to meet local producers and see how Estonian delicacies are made on site. The route highlights small-scale producers of high-quality artisan breads, jams, craft beer, and smoked fish, along with factories that are otherwise closed to the general public.
Some of the farms in the network also offer accommodation and serve their own products for breakfast.
From kolkhoz to cider
The first stop on the tour is an hour and half from Tallinn: a former Soviet kolkhoz (collective farm) warehouse transformed into a trendy cider bar with workshops accommodating huge fermentation tanks.
“When we decided to make our own commercial cider, it was clear that it would have to be better than what’s sold in stores. Otherwise, what’s the point?” says Alvar Roosimaa, a former financier who decided to leave the capital and try a new career after hundreds of cider-making experiments in the garage of his summer cottage in Kaelase village.
Today the Jaanihanso Siidrivabrik cider factory is the full-time occupation and main source of livelihood for Roosimaa and his photographer wife Veronika Roosimaa, who grow their own apples in their backyard orchards and buy the rest from farms nearby.
“The crop is always different each year, but that’s how it should be. We take what the Estonian summer offers us,” says Roosimaa, whose acclaimed cider is sold in ten countries and served in high-end restaurants such as Noa in Tallinn and Enigma in Barcelona.
Pärnu eats wild
A half-hour drive from Tallinn lies Pärnu, a picturesque small coastal town with white sandy beaches and a shallow bay. Famed for the health-inducing benefits of its mud baths, the spa town has been attracting visitors for over 200 years, including a Russian Tsar back in the day.
In recent years Pärnu has also emerged as a foodie destination. One of its claims to fame is an event called Restaurant Week, during which high-quality local eateries serve gourmet two- to three-course meals at affordable prices. One of the restaurants participating in the festival is Hea Maa, whose head chef Virkko Vendla is an enthusiastic advocate of the wild food trend.
“If I need wild mushrooms, I go to the forest myself and pick the right ones. And I couldn’t imagine pesto without spruce sprouts, an early spring delicacy,” says Vendla.
Pärnu’s restaurants and cafés are best explored by bike. Renting one is easy and cheap, and the local rental company, Rattarent, will even bring the cycle straight to your hotel for an extra charge of one euro.
To the lighthouse
In a country with more than 2,000 islands, it would be a sin not to visit the archipelago. Hiiumaa, the second biggest island in Estonia with a history dating back to 4000 BC, can be accessed by car ferry and is a good choice for both road and bike trippers. There are only 9,000 permanent inhabitants, but the island wakes up every summer as vacationers arrive for the school holidays.
Narrow winding roads, lighthouses, windmills, and red ochre houses create a distinctive atmosphere on the island. Its most famous symbol, the beautiful Kõpu lighthouse built in 1531, is one of the oldest in the world, and was luckily spared from Second World War bombing damage, although its neighbouring buildings were all destroyed.
Smoked herring and other seafood are the stars of the island community’s culinary scene. Among the great places to try fried herring is the Tuletorni Kohvik summer café in Kõpu lighthouse. The café is also famed for legendary apple and yoghurt cake made by the café owner, Annely Heilman.
“People drive here especially for the cake and many visitors make sure it’s available before they come,” says Heilman.
Text Ninarose Maoz
Photos Robert Seger